Emily Nixon has always been an arranger of objects. Whether it be stacking stones, tying and threading chairs together, suspending shoes from the ceiling or curating exhibitions for Newlyn Art Gallery.
At dawn, on a stretch of Cornish shore between Newlyn and Marazion on Mount's Bay, is where we find Emily Nixon searching for her objects today.
With the sun slowly rising behind St. Michael's Mount, Emily gathers her tools and materials that have been washed up on the tideline; ribbons of kelp, worn and weathered pieces of driftwood and twisted coils of seaweed with tactile edges. The kelp ribbons can be over a metre long sometimes, Emily says, fixated over the frills and silkiness, I have them everywhere, my car is full of them!
It is these natural knots, folds and dinks that form the starting point of Emily's jewellery. Torn ends of kelp and knobs of seaweed are transported by the bag-load to her loft studio in Hayle, where each piece is ordered and hung up above her old wooden desk to dry. I love these dried-up, gnarly bits that appear on the beach after a storm, Emily describes, whilst observing a tangled, root-like growth. Like this holdfast, for example. It is the bit of the seaweed that attaches and anchors itself to the rock. The roots are the most beautiful bit.
Unlike traditional jewellery making, Emily is less interested in the polished and perfect, and is instead drawn to grooves and imperfections in her own designs. She uses rudimentary and unconventional tools to imprint textures into soft beeswax, using the curve of a pebble as her guide and the sharp edge of a stick to make marks. Loops are instinctively modelled, and shapes are manipulated in her hands. Emily carefully presses the wax into the back of limpets with a sculptural approach. I don't think I quite fit in the conventional jewellery world, Emily explains, but I'm very happy with that.
Once modelled, the wax is cast into silver using the lost-wax process in a small foundry just outside of Penzance. The pieces then come back to Emily's studio and are worked into again. I might add some wax to the seaweed, cast that, take a mould and start the process again, says Emily casually, describing the cyclical progression to her practice. There might be a curve I particularly like, and I'll keep adding onto that. She meticulously finishes the details, making sure each works as a piece of jewellery, and then finally sends the silver to be hallmarked in Birmingham. Which I like, Emily chimes in, because the hallmark symbol is an anchor. Seeming more than apt.
Emily's pairing and assembling of objects is, to some extent, an extension of the work she was creating on her degree in Textiles at Goldsmiths College, then situated in Camberwell. She holds up an old framed brass tap, a piece from her degree show back in the '80's, and places it back down next to a neat, ordered row of pebbles. I've always collected things. From old walking sticks to golf clubs, Emily reflects. My mum is a collector of antique textiles, too, which is something that has been really inspirational to my work.
After graduating, Emily was awarded a scholarship from the British Council to study Tapestry and Sculpture in Warsaw, Poland, the year before the wall came down 1989. It was a really interesting time, we still had ration cards to go out and buy food, Emily explains. And the art that was being created was very subversive and political. I was exposed to all kinds of performance and installation art.
Emily describes her sculptural work from her time in Poland; an assemblage of backless chairs threaded together. On reflection, her sculptures subconsciously resembled giant, three-dimensional necklaces. On returning, Emily went on to set up Ash Gallery in Scotland, where she began to produce and curate exhibitions. She later found herself back in Cornwall, to spend ten years as a curator at Newlyn Art Gallery, introducing her contemporaries from London and beyond to the Cornish Art Scene.
And yet, there remained a niggle within Emily of wanting to work with her hands again. Comfortably settled in Cornwall with a family, Emily sat down one day at her bench and started to piece together a chain. I remember that very first chain felt like so much more than a necklace to me, she says, of her newly discovered creative output. By experimenting with irregular shapes, Emily ignited the beginning of her journey with jewellery as she now knows it.
Twenty years on, Emily starts each day early, with a full immersion in the water, most often at Battery Rocks. The sea is more to me than something I just look at, or am inspired by, Emily assures, I have absolutely integrated myself into it. The cold water, the ragged stones and the barnacles against the smooth rock pools are all a morning ritual for Emily, followed by a coffee to warm up and a rummage in the sands before heading to the studio.
It is these daily rituals that carry and flow through to Emily's current collection. Unmatched gemstones in a rockpool-inspired palette sit within crags of silver and gold; teals, blues and greens are paired with the limes, bright yellows, vermilions and pinks that you sometimes see below the water's surface. And there is a casualness to each piece, with watery sapphires sitting off-kilter, all characterized with a tumbled finish and sculptural asymmetry. Elements from the shoreline integrate seamlessly into Emily's working practice, as she recalls a line from nature writer Roger Deakin. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens, she re-counts. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world.
Words by Daisy Gray
Images by James Bannister
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